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An intro to web accessibility: building a digital world for everyone.

Craig Greenup 23/11/23, 09:30

An intro to web accessibility: building a digital world for everyone

Tim Berners-Lee imagined the internet as a space where everyone had the freedom to connect and share information. But the truth is, many people today are being left behind. The internet isn’t accessible to everyone.

Part of the problem? People aren’t giving enough thought to accessible web design. If you’re blind or deaf or have another kind of disability, some sites are frustrating to use. Others are completely off-limits.

Here, we’re going to look at accessible web design – what it is, why it matters and why it’s one of the essential ingredients of a great website.

Contents

  • What is web accessibility?
  • Why does web accessibility matter?
  • The business benefits of accessible web design
  • What are WCAG accessibility guidelines?
  • What are the four principles of web accessibility?
  • How does WCAG 2.2 change things?
  • What makes a website accessible?

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility is the degree to which websites and other digital tools are accessible to people with a range of sight, hearing, physical and cognitive abilities.

An accessible website takes the needs of all users into account. It removes barriers and provides extra functionality. That way, everyone can enjoy using the website and achieve the tasks they set out to do.

Why does website accessibility matter?

Today, we live so much of our lives on the internet. We go online to do our banking, shopping and other life admin. We use the web for learning and entertainment.

But websites that aren’t accessible exclude a big proportion of the population. Globally, 1 in 6 people has a significant disability.

And it’s not just people with a permanent disability who may struggle to access your website. People who fall into the following categories can also find it tricky:

  • Elderly people
  • People using a non-standard device, like a smartwatch or a smart TV
  • People with a temporary disability, like a broken arm or a lost pair of glasses
  • People who are trying to use your website in a less than ideal situation – for instance, a place with bright sunlight, lots of noise or a slow internet connection

When websites aren’t built with accessibility in mind, some sections of your audience will find them frustrating or impossible to use.

This matters because equality matters. Access to the internet is defined as a basic human right by the UN. You can help change the internet – and people’s lives – by breaking down web access barriers and giving them easy access to your site.

The business benefits of accessible web design

Accessible web design obviously makes a huge difference to people who have a disability. It makes it much easier for them to use the internet.

But did you know an accessible website could benefit your business too? Here are all the reasons why investing in accessible web design pays off.

It improves overall UX

When you think about accessibility, you create a better website experience for people with and without a disability. You think carefully about how users interact with your site. And how you can make the experience more streamlined and satisfying.

This human-centred approach to design makes users more likely to hang out on your site. And it has a knock-on effect for SEO too.

While accessibility isn’t an SEO ranking factor, good UX (user experience) is. When you provide a good UX for everyone, your site is more likely to show up in search results.


It boosts your brand

An accessible website presents your brand in the best light. It shows your commitment to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues – something that most consumers and employees care about.

This helps boost your brand and makes you stand out from the competition. You’ll find it easier to gain new customers and employees, and to win their loyalty.


It extends your market reach

A large proportion of the global population has a disability. The population is also ageing, which means the number of people with a disability is growing. When you have an accessible website you give this huge market the chance to shop your products and services.


It helps you stick to the law

Over in the US, several successful lawsuits have been brought against companies that weren’t providing an accessible website experience. Big names like Domino’s Pizza, Target and Visa have all been called out for their poor website accessibility. And in 2022 alone, claimants filed 3,255 website accessibility lawsuits.

In the UK, The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has brought legal action against a number of companies. Here, website accessibility comes under the Equality Act 2010. And there are strict rules for public sector websites. So to protect yourself from legal action, it makes sense to make your site accessible going forward.

What are WCAG accessibility guidelines?

We can’t talk about website accessibility without talking about WCAG.

WCAG stands for web content accessibility guidelines. These guidelines are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and they provide in-depth recommendations for making the web more accessible.

Business owners, web developers and web designers can use WCAG to ensure their websites are accessible to everyone.

What are the four principles of web accessibility?

W3C says that all websites and apps should meet the four principles of web accessibility.

1. Perceivable

Users can perceive the information on a website or app, whatever their sensory ability. This means, for example, providing text for people who can’t hear and audio for people who cannot see.

2. Operable

Users can operate the interface of a website or app, even if they can’t use a mouse or a keyboard.

3. Understandable

Users understand how to navigate the interface of a website or app and can understand the information it contains.

4. Robust

Websites and apps adapt to different platforms, browsers and devices. They give personal choice and adapt to user needs.

How does WCAG 2.2 change things?

WCAG 2.2 was released on 5th October 2023. This is an update to previous WCAG guidelines and helps organisations and web developers better meet the needs of users with disabilities.

Most things have stayed the same but there are a couple of key changes, including new or updated guidance on all of the following:

  • The size of clickable items to support people who have issues with hand-eye coordination
  • Offering another mode of operation for any functionality that requires a dragging movement
  • How to highlight the focus feature when users are navigating via the keyboard
  • Making interface controls permanently visible so users don’t have to hover or drag to make them appear
  • Making login methods and form entry easier and more streamlined
  • Making it easier for users to access help when completing tasks
  • Using page numbers to help people using a screen reader or screen navigation know where they’re up to within a piece of content

What makes a website accessible?

Having an accessible website is great for your customers and for your bottom line. But what ingredients go into improving web accessibility?

It starts with designers and developers who have a good understanding of web accessibility principles. They’ll work to incorporate accessibility from the beginning of a project – not as an afterthought. That way, accessibility features are an integral and effective part of the design.

Your accessible web design should then include all of the following:

Contrast

There needs to be enough contrast between the foreground and background colours on your website. This applies to every feature on the page – buttons, links, text, images and icons. If your design doesn’t have enough contrast, your website is less accessible to people with visual impairment or colour blindness.


Voice recognition

People with physical disabilities rely on voice recognition to use a computer. They give voice commands instead of using a keyboard or mouse.

Accessible websites incorporate voice recognition technology. They also make it clear to users that voice commands are available – and provide instructions on how to use them.


Text-to-speech

Text-to-speech (TTS) reads the text on a webpage out loud. It’s useful for people who are blind or partially sighted, people who are dyslexic and anyone else who has trouble reading text.

As well as coding this functionality into a website or app, designers and developers need to give users control over the feature. Users should be able to start, stop and adjust the spoken text as needed.


Video captions

Video captions allow people who are deaf and people who are in a noisy environment to access video content. They’re also useful for people who speak another language because captions are easy to translate.

Alt text

As its name suggests, alt text is a text alternative for visual page elements. It’s short but descriptive text, telling a website user everything they need to know about an image. A screen reader can then read this text out loud.


Clear layout and design

Poor layout is frustrating for all website users. But it’s a particular issue for people with cognitive and learning disabilities, people with visual disabilities and anyone who isn’t confident using a computer.

In accessible web design, the layout and design are clear, with consistent styling throughout. Menus, buttons and search functions are easy to use, so users can navigate the site and find what they’re looking for.


Easy-to-understand notifications and feedback

Even relatively tech-savvy website users can feel confused when they get a technical error message. To avoid confusing less confident users, it’s important to provide error messages in terms everyone can understand. The same goes for any other kind of site notification.


Large links, buttons and controls

Accessible websites have links and buttons that are easy to click, even for people with reduced dexterity or those navigating on small smartphone screens.

They also give people enough time to complete an action. So if a person has to hover over a menu item to see available options, those options don’t disappear before the user has had time to act.


Customizable text

Customisable text isn’t just an issue of preference. It’s a necessity for people with visual impairment and those with dyslexia. A properly coded website allows users to customise the text on your webpage. They can change the font, size and colour to make text more readable – without losing function or clarity.


Understandable content

The words you use on your website are another important accessibility factor. Try to use simple words and phrases, nothing overly long or complicated. Avoid industry jargon. And make it easy for users to consume content by splitting it up with headings, short paragraphs and lists where possible.

This makes it easier for non-native speakers and people with cognitive or learning disabilities to use your site.


Keyboard navigation

Many people use a keyboard to navigate a website. That could be because of a physical disability, limited mobility, circumstance or just a broken mouse.

Websites should allow users to tab through features before pressing enter to click on the item they want. Allowing users to skip the navigation bar helps them to access webpage content without tabbing through every item. And breadcrumbs allow users to quickly navigate back to a previous page.

At Radical, we’re committed to making websites accessible to everyone. If you want to make your site more accessible or want to build an accessible website from scratch, get in touch to chat about your project with our friendly team.